Finding Hope, Even in the Waiting: New St. John's Lutheran Pastor Strives to Stay Ahead of the Curve


There may be no better description of the era in which Rev. Jim Odden came to St. John’s Lutheran, nor his attitude toward it, than what is inked directly onto his skin.

Pastor Jim, as he prefers to be called, has a tattoo on his knuckles spelling out the Hebrew word Yakhal. Simply put, it means hope. In a larger sense, it is the type of hope that urges us to both wait for and to look for the object of our hope.

“It’s hoping for the best, waiting for it to come and, also, we’re going to get a few calluses working toward it,” Odden said of the meaning of the inscription.

Odden took over pastoral duties at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Chehalis about six months ago. Prior to coming to Chehalis, he pastored the Mountain View Ministry parish in rural North Dakota for four years. Prior to that, he worked as a chaplain at St. Cloud Veterans Hospital in St. Cloud, Minnesota. An avid outdoorsman, Odden said he had his sights on finding a church in the Pacific Northwest for a while before coming to Chehalis.

“Between mountains, trees or water I say if I have two of the three, I’m happy,” Odden said.

When he was young, Odden’s parents moved their family frequently to follow available work opportunities. His religious upbringing was ecumenical: his father was Lutheran, his mother was Catholic and his stepfather was Baptist. Pastor was not a career goal for Odden when he was very young. He began working in carpentry with his dad and brother as a teenager and continued in that line of work off and on for about 25 years. As an adult, he began to feel called to ministry and, as he tells it, “Ignored the tap on my shoulder for far too long.”

Eventually, he attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. With a focus on chaplaincy and multicultural ministry. He said he chose the Lutheran church with his wife of 28 years, Kristal. He explained the couple essentially went “church shopping” and both felt drawn to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), one of four major branches of the Lutheran church. Odden said they both felt ELCA was most in line with their personal values, though Odden noted that doesn’t mean he always agrees with every decision made by the denomination.

“I always tell people they should ask questions, even if the questions are hard,” he said.

In the Lutheran church, a pastor’s move to a different location is a matter handled with input from the pastor, bishop, church and a governing body called a Synod. While serving in North Dakota, Odden said he had a conversation with a member of his Synod that led him to look at the opening at St. John’s Lutheran.  Odden said St. John’s has a similar number of worshipers to his last congregation, just at one church location, instead of at three different church buildings.

“So, I have my office in one or two locations rather than four or five, which is really nice,” Odden said.

Coming with him on the move to Washington, Odden’s wife, Kristal, is a social worker at Panorama in Lacey. The couple has five kids and the youngest two still live at home and attend Chehalis schools. Odden said their family received a warm welcome from St. John’s worshipers, including members who helped them move into their new home and even filled their pantry as a gift.

“As warm and friendly as it could be without getting to be too much,” Odden said.

Odden said some of the things he enjoys most about pastoring a congregation are gatherings such as confirmation and Bible study groups. He explained that he feels most energized by environments where he gets to interact with people and hear what they have to say.

“Preaching is good but it’s one-way,” Odden said.

Continuing to navigate worship amid the COVID pandemic, as well as envisioning post-COVID worship is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing churches today and St. John’s is no exception, Odden noted. For one, pastors and church leaders have had to become more tech savvy. At the beginning of the pandemic, St. John’s began offering livestreamed church services in place of in-person worship. Now that most restrictions have been lifted, the church offers a once-a-week on-site worship that is also livestreamed for those who want to continue to join in that way.

Now that streaming is part of the worship landscape, Odden said he never could have predicted the reach that virtual church services could have. At St. John’s there are kids and grandkids of parishioners who do not live in the area who virtually join their family for worship, as well as former parishioners who continue to join church services from other states. The church leadership sees steaming as so much as part of St. John’s future that they recently added a permanent booth to house audio and visual equipment at the back of their sanctuary.

Odden said the ability to stream had been available in some form for more than 20 years but it was largely ignored until it was necessary. It is just one example of how churches need to be ready to be innovative and to constantly challenge themselves to think about whether the status quo is still the best way of doing things.

“Most people have no idea what is coming,” Odden said. “Things have changed and will continue to change and we need to stay ahead of the curve.”

When he’s not at the church, Odden said he loves spending time with his family, especially hiking. He also plays the fiddle and has been doing amateur genealogy research for about 27 years. When he gets the opportunity, he rides a Harley Davidson. The bike, as well as his beard and tattoos make him cut a different profile than pastors that many people have met. He said that can often be a bonus for some people. For example, at the VA hospital, some of the veterans were not comfortable talking with him over a chaplain with a more traditional look, whereas some were more eager to talk with him because they felt at ease with him.

“Neither person is more or less qualified, it’s just some people are happier to talk with someone who looks like me,” Odden said.